Joint Commission on Technology and Science
November 19, 1997, Richmond
In part, the fourth commission meeting of the 1997 interim brought the commission's work around full circle to work which began in 1996 with the HJR 195 study committee, the predecessor to the commission.
The universal service fund provisions of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 were a major focus of HJR 195's work. With the subcommittee's recommendation, the 1997 General Assembly passed HJR 635, encouraging the State Corporation Commission (SCC) to continue its efforts to open up competition in the local exchange market among telephone, cable, and other communications companies, and HJR 444, requesting the Library of Virginia to develop a strategic information technology plan for the Commonwealth's public library system.
The SCC's report recommends that the SCC: (i) continue its long distance and local competition initiatives (begun as early as 1983); (ii) continue to monitor universal service proceedings at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), including pending federal court cases, and take action as appropriate; (iii) allow the universal service fund to operate for at least two years before assessing the need for additional state funding; and (iv) advise the Virginia General Assembly should the need for legislation arise in the future (none is requested for the 1998 Session). The report, published as House Document No. 15 (1998), includes the SCC's order of June 30, 1997, adopting the discounts for intrastate telecommunications services established by the FCC. Adoption of these rates is a prerequisite to a state's eligibility for discounts funded by the universal service fund. The SCC was one of the public utility commissions in the nation to do so.
Library of Virginia
Preliminary findings in the Library of Virginia's interim report indicate that the ability of Virginia's public libraries to provide access to the information highway for Virginia's citizens remains extremely limited. In 1996, the library reported to the HJR 195 subcommittee that there were only 351 computers in Virginia's public libraries used for Internet access. A 1997 update to the survey indicated that while the number of localities offering the service has increased, the number of public-access computers decreased to 348. The decline was attributed to a number of computers in the Norfolk library systeminitially put in service through a generous private donationbeing withdrawn from service for mechanical reasons.
Based on preliminary scenarios, the library estimated that a $37 million commitment of state and local funds within the next biennium would be required to provide Virginia's citizens "universal access" to the information highway through the public library system. To implement universal access, the report recommends that (i) all Virginia public libraries and their bibliographic databases should be linked electronically; (ii) the information highway should be accessible to all citizens of the Commonwealth through high-speed connections to the Internet at their local public libraries; (iii) public libraries should provide access to full text electronic resources that meet citizen's information needs; and (iv) public library staff should assist citizens to use the Internet to access resources that will answer their questions and expand their knowledge. The Library of Virginia made no request in its 1998-2000 executive budget submission to fund the implementation recommendations.
The Department of Education reported that Virginia's schools and libraries legitimately stand to receive $40 million from the $2.25 billion universal service fund, the federally funded program that will provide discounts between 20 and 90 percent for eligible telecommunications services to schools and libraries. Discounts are based on the percentage of students within a school who reside in a household within 185 percent of the poverty level (and thus are eligible for free or reduced school lunches) and whether the school is located in an urban or rural area. Based on the department's preliminary data and calculations, the average discount for Virginia schools would be 60 percent; no school would receive less than a 40 percent discount nor more than an 80 percent discount.
In addition to a state's public utility commission adopting the discounts for intrastate telecommunications services established by the FCC, schools which apply for discounted services must have an approved technology plan on file with the state's department of education to be eligible. Every Virginia school division has such a plan on file with the department. The FCC has developed and released several forms related to the program; however, application forms were not expected to be available until December. Under that scenario, the "filing window" would open sometime in January and must close, under a reconsideration order entered by the FCC, 75 days later. Services will be covered retroactively to January 1, 1998, or the date the contract was signed, whichever is later.
Upon the recommendation of the HJR 195 subcommittee, the 1997 General Assembly also passed SJR 218, requesting the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) to examine the demand for computer scientists, engineers, and other technologically skilled workers in Virginia industry, and SJR 226, requesting the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) to report on the status of certain emerging scientific and technological assets.
SCHEV reported that a number of recent studies have been conducted by various organizations attempting to quantify the much-publicized shortage of technology workers in Virginia. These studies indicate that to keep pace with the growing demand, the Commonwealth needs to supply approximately 110,000 new technology workers over the next five years (22,000 per year). Not all of these jobs will require formal degrees; on the other hand, the 22,000 figure does not take into account jobs which require some level of technological competency but are not completely technological in nature (e.g., bank tellers, insurance agents, retail merchants). This shortcoming highlights one of the major challenges in closing the gap between demand and supply and developing a clear picture of the skills and competencies required in a rapidly changing work environment. SCHEV's full report will be published later this winter as a 1998 Senate Document.
CIT reported that as a whole, Virginia's science and technology assets are key to supporting existing and emerging technology-based industries as they compete in a global economy. Various high-technology facilities in Virginia were the particular focus of CIT's study, published as Senate Document No. 8 (1998). To fully capitalize on all the potential research, development, and commercialization opportunities, the report recommends:
The commission endorsed a pilot project for 1998 which joins the commission with Virginia Public Television, Net.Work.Virginia, and the Division of Legislative Automated Systems. The project's first objective is to allow commission members to participate in videoconferenced meetings from within or near their home districts at public sites connected to Net.Work.Virginia, thus saving legislators' time and taxpayers' money. The second objective is to provide a mechanism to increase public awareness of and participation in the commission's work, a goal which is achieved by broadcasting the commission's meetings over Net.Work.Virginia to public sites on the network (about 190 to date) and over Virginia Public Television's instructional programming to schools. A third objective is to broadcast meetings in real time over the Internet on the commission's website and to preserve the unedited meetings as RealVideo archives for later retrieval by citizens with access to the Internet, a sound system, and free software. A $100,000 appropriation has been requested to fund the pilot.
Commission meetings have been scheduled for Monday, January 5, 1998, at 10:00 a.m. in House Room D of the General Assembly Building and again on Wednesday, January 14, 1998, at 10:00 a.m. in the 5th Floor West Conference Room of the General Assembly Building. More information about the commission, including meeting agendas, is available from http://legis.state.va.us/jcots/jcots.htm. All commission and advisory committee meetings are open to the public.
The Honorable Kenneth R. Plum, Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Diane E. Horvath